November 28, 2011

Identifying trees in the "leafless deep bush"

The following is excerpted from "Wood" in Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro with images by this blog for Festival of the Trees 66.


Many people recognize trees by their leaves or by their general shape and size, but walking through the leafless deep bush Roy knows them by their bark.  Ironwood, that heavy and reliable firewood, has a shaggy brown bark on its stocky trunk, but its limbs are smooth at their tips and decidedly reddish.  Cherry is the blackest tree in the bush, and its bark lies in picturesque scales.  Most people would be surprised at how high cherry trees grow here--they are nothing like the cherry trees in fruit orchards.  Apple trees are more like their orchard representatives--not very tall, bark not so definitely scaled or dark as the cherry's.  Ash is a soldierly tree with a corduroy-ribbed trunk.  The maple's gray bark has an irregular surface, the shadows creating black streaks, which meet sometimes in rough rectangles, sometimes not.  There is a comfortable carelessness about their bark, suitable to the maple tree, which is homely and familiar and what most people think of when they think of a tree.


Beech trees and oaks are another matter--there is something notable and dramatic about them, though neither has as lovely a shape as the big elm trees which are now nearly all gone.  Beech has the smooth gray bark, the elephant skin, which is usually chosen for the carving of initials.  These carvings widen with the years and decades, from the slim knife groove to the blotches that make the letters at last illegible, wider than they are long.


Beech will grow a hundred feet high in the bush. In the open they spread out and are as wide as high, but in the bush they shoot up, the limbs at the top will take radical turns and can look like stag horns.  But this arrogant-looking tree may have a weakness of twisted grain, which can be detected by ripples in the bark.  That's a sign that it might break, or go down in a high wind.  As for oak trees, they are not so common in this country, not so common as beech but always easy to spot.  Just as maple trees always look like the common necessary tree in the backyard, so oak trees always look like trees in storybooks, as if, in all the stories that begin, "Once upon a time in the woods," the woods were full of oaks.  Their dark, shiny, elaborately indented leaves contribute to this look, but they seem just as legendary when the leaves are off and you can see so well the thick corky bark with its gray-black color and intricate surface, and the devilish curling and curving of the branches.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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